The great irony of Cold In July is that it’s Michael C. Hall’s Richard Dane, a professional framer who makes his living literally squaring up pictures to hang on walls, who spins things out of control by demanding just that, a nicely framed explanation for an attempted burglary of his home. We open on him shooting and killing a burglar in the black of night, then struggling to move on when the police shrug off the incident as a matter of self-defense. Guilt-ridden, eyed differently by the townsfolk, and soon stalked by the burglar’s ex-con father Russel (Sam Shepard), he sees any chance of closure evaporate when the burglar’s identity is called into question, and he must turn from a patronizing police department to the man now threatening his family for answers.
Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, adapting Joe R Lansdale’s novel, weave the entire movie around Richard’s conflicted conscience. Mickle diligently shows the Danes cleaning up after the shooting, which has left a bloody swath in their living room centered on a large canvas painting, the culminating symbol of Richard’s livelihood and domesticity. He claims to simply want to know the man he killed, but as his priorities shift toward uncovering the truth behind the body, he finds himself seduced by the possibility of vigilante justice led by the headstrong, but equally contradictory Russel. The deeper he investigates, the more the world he uncovers takes hold of him, his obsession for closure replaced by a newly un-closeted bloodlust. Their team-up, no matter how spoiled by the poster (or this review, sorry), is still a great shock given Russel’s transgressions and Richard’s disposition, and their little mission is pleasingly covert given how high the odds are stacked against them.
It’s the stuff of hardboiled pulp, played up for grim laughs and dramatic irony. The major exception is its planting of an everyman at its center, one whose stricken conscience and closeness to danger dips him into a full blown identity crisis. Richard goes through the wringer, failing to justify his killing of an intruder and resenting everyone’s cut-and-dry judgment of his innocence so much so that his craving for punishment finds release in the opportunity to punish others. Thanks to Hall’s nervy performance, Richard’s tentative reinvention throttles between hilariously outmatched to coldly determined, his queasiness always a source of tension as his two partners-in-vigilante justice ask more of him.
Shepard lends an incredible amount of history to Russel, an inscrutable vet whose personal code has translated poorly off the battlefield, and enough good things can’t be said of Don Johnson’s Jim Bob, the rare flamboyant anti-hero, equal parts dandy and cowboy, who proves extremely accommodating to Richard’s and Russel’s mission. Jim Bob’s appearance is the biggest swat over the head that Cold In July doesn’t take itself too seriously: he’s a private eye who lives for the hardboiled stuff but takes it all in stride without a hint of regret, woman trouble, or substance abuse. It’s mostly thanks to him that Richard is taken on his journey of self-discovery, given permission to do all sorts of things he never would have conceived of.
While the less is known the better, it can be said that the central trio make for a wildly entertaining and unpredictable group. Add in a very cool score by Jeff Grace and the sure hand of Mickle at the helm, Cold In July is uniquely cool, squeezing as much black humor out of the sinister world it dips into, putting its own self-awareness in just the right light so as to maintain an appreciation of characterization and pulpy thrills first. This is one more triumph for Mickle and Damici, another knowing genre piece that keeps the good parts and knows not to act too clever about it.